What's driving this?

Photographer: Maddie McGarvey/Getty Images

Race, Not Class, Dictates Republican Future

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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The class compositions of the Republican and Democratic parties keep evolving. Democrats have been shedding working-class white voters for decades, while the GOP, long the party of management, entrepreneurs and inherited wealth, has acquired a new affinity for blue-collar blues, including a presidential nominee who promises to keep economically unviable coal operations in business while crushing labor competition from low-skilled immigrants. 

A Pew Research Center report last month detailed the shift.

Since 1992, the share of Democratic and Democratic-leaning registered voters with at least a college degree has increased sharply, from 21 percent to 37 percent. Among Republicans, 31 percent have at least a college degree, up only slightly from 28 percent in 1992. As a consequence, a greater proportion of Democrats than Republicans now have a college degree or more education.

In the New York Times last week, political sage Thomas Edsall called this process the “Great Democratic Inversion.”

What these figures suggest is that the 2016 election will represent a complete inversion of the New Deal order among white voters. From the 1930s into the 1980s and early 1990s, majorities of downscale whites voted Democratic and upscale whites voted Republican. Now, looking at combined male and female vote totals, the opposite is true.

A key word in Edsall’s analysis is "white." Stories about the disaffected working-class supporters of Donald Trump apply almost exclusively to white voters. Other working-class voters -- blacks and Hispanics -- are poised to provide lopsided support to Hillary Clinton.

The Democratic Party is departing from its working-class and populist past, and some liberals and leftists have been understandably troubled by the results. But as a simple voting matter, working-class nonwhites, having endured decades of veiled hostility from the Republican Party, now face overt antipathy from the Trumpified GOP. They show no great desire to abandon the Democratic coalition.

Fear of hostile Republicans isn’t the only part of the equation. Many see a better future in a diversifying nation. A Pew report in June found extraordinary optimism among Hispanics, with four in five saying they expected their family’s financial condition to improve in the next year. A National Public Radio poll in 2013, when unemployment was higher and economic uncertainty greater, found that more than four in five blacks said they were satisfied with their lives overall, with more than half saying they were better off than their parents.

There is no expansive, working-class rage in the U.S. There is white conservative rage (along with a more modest left-wing version). While it may burn brightest in deindustrialized America, conservative rage extends across class and educational demarcations, from blue collars to billionaires.

This complicates the story of the parties switching class allegiances. For Democrats, it leaves them managing an increasingly unwieldy coalition extending from white cosmopolitan millionaires who send their kids to private schools to low-paid Hispanic service workers and black factory and office workers facing economic dislocation. (Asians, the other component of the Democrats’ multiracial coalition, typically have higher education and income levels.)

Keeping that coalition pointed in the same general direction might be impossible without the dedicated efforts of the Republican Party. The GOP has proved incapable of breaking out of its racial straitjacket. So it has opted instead to tighten the straps around its torso.

There has been a running debate, if you can call it that, over whether Trump voters are motivated more by economic anxiety or racial anxiety. But you needn’t choose; the latter can fuel the former (or vice versa).

In 2013, a Latino Decisions poll found a key connection. The poll report stated: “Sixty-one percent of white conservatives and 56 percent of whites ages 65 or older agree that discrimination against whites will increase due to rising diversity.”

In other words, a large majority of white conservative respondents believed that whites’ economic prospects might dim -- they would be discriminated against -- as racial diversity flowered. The implications for status anxiety, powered by a fear of whites changing places with nonwhites in the socioeconomic hierarchy, are obvious.   

Republicans have made scattershot progress on race. South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley finally removed the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol grounds in 2015. But it took a racist massacre to provide the political cover to do something so obviously decent.

Republicans’ constant struggle with racism in their ranks, and their recurring failure to resist the temptation to exploit it, eases pressure on the Democrats’ sprawling coalition. The parties won’t fully exchange their class identities for the simple reason that working-class blacks and Hispanics can’t trust the GOP to represent them.

If it doesn’t diversify and become more accommodating to nonwhites, the GOP will only grow crazier and scarier, and its effort to wield power with the support of a shrinking white base will become even more extreme. At some point, this could even entail radical efforts to suppress nonwhite votes, abandon democratic norms concerning court appointments and basic governmental operations, and engage in and rationalize frightening levels of demagogy in the pursuit of increasingly scarce white votes.

Of course, that point is already passed, isn’t it?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net